Kitchen Liberation - Page 3

Did the trendsetting open cook spaces and newfangled foods of the mid-century free women—or simply trap them?
Kitchen Liberation
Ann Anderson served as the RCA Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen's model American housewife during the 1959 Moscow exhibit.

Marcus added: "Leisure isn't just the absence of labor; it is the freedom to seek more rewarding work."

Design historian Juliana Rowan Barton, who comes at the issue from the left and as a scholar of color, has an entirely different take.

In an enlightening 2020 dissertation, 'The Model Kitchen: Domesticating Modernism in the American Home, 1942-1966,' Barton examines model kitchens produced in the postwar years by such paragons of capitalism as Frigidaire, Libby-Owens-Ford, and General Electric.

Model kitchens blended the practical with sci-fi. Frigidaire's Kitchen of the Future, as displayed in 1957, featured an "Electro Recipe File that selects, preps, and mixes together a cake for [the housewife], which she then places in the glass-domed oven to bake."

"Don't have to be chained to the stove all day," the narrator of Frigidaire's promotional film rhymed. "Just set the timer and you're on your way."

  Kitchen Liberation
Vice-president Richard Nixon (right) used the Miracle Kitchen to portray the values of capitalism during the 'kitchen debate' with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (left).

But, as Laura Shapiro writes, a lot of women weren't buying the promises of a bright tech-food future then—many continued to bake from scratch, and rather than replacing real dinners, TV dinners never became more than occasional convenience foods.

And Juliana Barton is not buying it now. She regards many mid-century kitchen innovations—including Eichler's open kitchen—as creating a trap for women.

By putting the kitchen and kitchen counter "front and center" in the home, Barton wrote, Eichler turned it into the home's "command center," suggesting that the woman who worked there was powerful and professional.

  Kitchen Liberation
Another model kitchen, this one at the Formica pavilion at the New York Worlds Fair, 1964.

"In such an open kitchen, the housewife was also to be integrated spatially into the home, so that she did not appear to be a hired hand, and so that she could carry out a supervisory role over her family," Barton wrote in her dissertation. "Furthermore, the opening up of the kitchen to the living areas of the house…served as part of the visual and spatial lexicon that marked the woman and worker not as a servant, but rather as a wife and, most importantly, as a mother."

Barton notes, though, that the kitchens of tomorrow that were widely displayed and publicized in the early 1950s also added to the burden of the housewife by raising "expectations about middle-class standards of cleanliness, health, and comfort [which] added to the mid-century housewife's workload, as she was expected to meet these standards single-handedly when her counterparts a century earlier had a staff of two or three."

Kitchen Liberation
Appliance marketers resorted to romance by providing the housewife a life free of drudgery.

And, Barton writes, professional and modern it may be, but a kitchen remains a kitchen, and all too often women remained trapped there. "The idea of white women being freed from kitchen labor held a powerful appeal," she wrote, "yet the performance of domestic labor was seen as their most important contribution to society.

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